Sunday, October 31, 2010

speak, memory: the archive between memory and forgetting

Yesterday morning, Egyptian artist Malak Helmy raised a question about the assumed urgency and need for creating archives and other forms of permanent memory. Helmy’s comment resonated with the story of Funes, the Memorius by Jorge Luis Borges, which Professor Victor Mayer-Schonberger cited in his book, delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Funes is a young boy, who acquired perfect memory due to a horseback riding accident. However, he simultaneously lost his ability to generalize and abstract as he was caught up in multiple narratives of history and infinite details of daily life. The artist's comment triggered a debate among the symposium participants about the purpose and consequences of creating comprehensive and perfect memory.

Ongoing research projects are producing an overwhelming body of knowledge. This might create equally hegemonic structures parallel to existing ones that researchers are attempting to escape. Much of the research done is in response to existing contentious narratives of history. Furthermore, the agendas of funders add another layer of partiality to the produced authored research as highlighted by Jesus Carrillo of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain and Heba Farid of Cultnet in Egypt. In addition to problems of trust between the public and the gatekeepers of archives and research projects, the insistence on the enlightening role of the archive seems simplistic, argues Negar Azmi, the senior editor of Bidoun magazine. For instance, the leaked images from Abu Ghraib prison failed to stop the torture; and the ongoing discussion on the Wikileaks in the US focuses more on patriotism rather than war crimes. Might the archive of cases of violence thus have a soothing effect on its users or is it a question of modes and contexts of dissemination?

Some of the symposium participants went to the extent of foreseeing a need to dismantle the archive in the future, returning the documents and memories back into the personal space. In some cases, we do not need to fill in the blanks and the lacks could be equally valuable to be able to live and act firmly in the present. Sean Dackery, the founder of the online pirate library AAAARG.ORG, even cites cases when writers wished that old writings that were out of print would disappear.

Still, many argued in favor of the empowering roles of archives. co-initiator Sebastian Lutgert compares the accessibility of the archive to the open city model, where governments abandon defensive mechanisms in the case of imminent capture to preserve their cities. In the case of the archive, the best way of preservation is to distribute copies of the material to a larger audience, making it accessible and usable. Monika Borgmann – the co-founder of the Umam Documentation and Research Project in Beirut – added that what the archive offers is an option of remembrance for those who wish to engage with certain events and periods.

The question thus becomes not about the usefulness of the archive, but rather about finding ways to present the documents in an impartial and unbiased way. Researchers should be left the room to form their own opinions rather than being presented with authored narratives as highlighted by Steve Urgola, the archivist of the American University in Cairo (AUC) libraries. It is within this impartiality that the true value of the archive lies.

Speak, memory might have opened up more questions than it resolved. However, the resulting contention might be necessary for people to reflect more critically on their practices as highlighted by the symposium curator Laura Caderera in her closing comments.

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